Sermons

Address for Pentecost 2 by Mr. Brian Bechtel, Seminarian Intern

At Virginia Theological Seminary, the students often argue about what the teachings of the Episcopal Church actually are on a given moral or theological issue. There is some debate around whether or not our Church has “teachings” at all, in the formal sense, or if it instead has something more like customs and traditions. Very little in the way of doctrine is officially defined in the canons of the Episcopal Church, and the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer gives only the briefest of outlines of the faith as a whole. Anglicanism, as a whole, is always trying to walk a fine line between dogmatism on the one hand, and relativism on the other. The dogmatism we are most familiar with would either be the Roman Catholic claim of an infallible pope, or the Evangelical claim of an inerrant Bible. We Episcopalians tend generally do a good job of avoiding that end of the spectrum. Our danger lies more in the other end, where we can lose our conviction in the specific content of our Christian faith. We can fall into what is sometimes termed “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” That is, we have a vague belief in some kind of creator god, and that this god loves us and wants us to be good and nice people, and that good people go to heaven when they die. All of the content that makes the faith specifically Christian, the story of Christ, the Incarnation of God, Christian virtues, etc. All of this is becoming a bit murky in the minds of some of the Christian faithful today. Moral Therapeutic Deism can easily see the “clay pot” aspect of our faith, but the “treasure” aspect is out of focus. What is this treasure Paul speaks of?

In today’s epistle reading when Paul uses the metaphor of “treasure in clay pots” he is speaking about how the ministers of the church are fallible human beings. But this image of treasure in clay pots is so vivid and striking because it applies to many aspects of our Christian faith. The Holy Scriptures themselves are, in a sense, earthenware vessels. We do not have the original manuscripts, and there are sometimes conflicting readings in what we do have. And our institutional Church is also a clay pot. We love our Church, and we believe that the Holy Spirit works in and through the Church, instituted by Christ himself, but at the same time, if we are to be honest with ourselves, then we must also be aware of all of the times the institutional Church has been sinful, often to ready to cozy up to the powers that be at the expense of the oppressed. The way in which the Church of England supported and was supported by colonialism is a great example of this. We are clay pots, in a clay house, as it were.
But in our honestly recognizing our own faults and shortcomings, we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the treasure, which is the gospel itself. Not the texts of the gospels, but THE GOSPEL. The Good News that Our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and all are invited to a new life in Him. That is our faith, and is the treasure we hold onto, despite any external problems.

Paul is brilliant in this letter. He knows well how corrupt and quarrelsome people can be. Let’s face it, he’s quite often dealing with church fights, and those can get pretty ugly! He knows that life in the Church is often far from perfect, because we are all just people, and we all fall into sin. His brilliance here is to show us that God wanted it to be this way. We have treasure in clay pots “SO THAT it may be seen” that what is done is from God and not of our own power.

This juxtaposition of power with weakness defines the Christian life. Paul ties his sufferings directly to the sufferings of Christ. In Paul’s time, the stoic philosophers taught that it was virtuous to be indifferent to outside circumstances. You are to simply bear your sufferings through your own internal strength. Paul turns this thinking on his head. He says yes, you will be afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted! But not crushed, not driven to despair, and not forsaken! Why? Because as disciples of Christ we have taken on both Christ’s “death” and his “life.”
Death and life here both have multiple meanings. In always carrying the death of Jesus, we die to ourselves, leaving sin behind. The death of Jesus was a death of suffering, and Christians must be prepared to suffer at times. But we also carry the “life” of Christ in us. This of course refers to our resurrected bodies, but it is not only that. Just as “death” is both now in one sense, and in the future in another sense, so too is Christ’s life not only future, but also now. The Christian virtues to which God is calling us through this Holy Scripture are humility, and forbearance. Suffering is sometimes necessary, but it becomes possible for us, bearable for us not because of our own inner strength and determination, but because we have new life, Christ’s life in us always. This is the heart of the Gospel, the treasure in the earthenware vessel. Let us pray this week for God’s guidance, asking Him him to help us cultivate the virtues of humility and forbearance, so that God’s love and God’s power may be shown through us.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is a joke about how clergy try to get out of preaching on Trinity Sunday, it being the day every year when we are charged with saying something edifying about that most difficult of theological concepts. If you have a seminarian, the common advice has it, make him preach. Well, for the first time in a decade of ordained ministry I have a seminarian on the bench on Trinity Sunday, but he’s preaching next week, so it’s still up to me, it would seem.

Last year I introduced you to a Greek term—perichoresis—which describes the relationships of the three persons of the Godhead in a way quite distinct from the natural but heretical view that the Trinity is about division of labor. As you may or may not remember, the point was that the whole of God, not just a single person within the Godhead, accomplishes the work of God, and the mystery of the Trinity is less about what God does, but what he is: namely a self-sustaining relationship of love in which individuality is subsumed into the act of love, such that Father, Son and Holy Spirit can no longer be distinguished from each other.

This year I want to introduce you to another Greek term, this one perhaps a bit less dense than last year’s perichoresis. The term is kenosis, and it means “emptying”. It is a term used most widely in Christology— that is the study of the nature of Christ—but it is, I will argue, a key concept in Trinitarian theology and in its implications for our own spiritual and moral lives.

First, let’s look at the word itself. A form of the Greek verb kenóō appears five times in the New Testament, all in Pauline epistles. The most important for our purposes is found in the second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians in that great Christological hymn which Paul reproduces:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but εκενωσεν (emptied) himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

The Incarnation is a doctrine which hinges upon kenosis- self-emptying, which too often we talk about in weaker terms such as self-limitation. But the man Jesus of Nazareth’s lack of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence was not a matter of willpower but of objective truth; it is not that he simply chose not to use the infinite power of God from moment to moment, but that he had emptied himself of that power before he was even a baby in a manger.

But what does all this have to do with the Trinity? Remember, last year’s sermon? The Trinity is characterized by a relationship of love within the Godhead. What is such love if it simply remains in one being? It seems to be narcissism. If each of us were spiritually defined by a love we had within ourselves for ourselves “full stop”, then our spiritual lives would not only be lacking, they’d be perverse.

Now, the same could not be said of God, if he chose to keep that love as a private affair, because the standards for God are not ours, and without God’s kenosis we’d not be here to argue about it. Nevertheless, what makes God’s love inestimable and salutary is precisely that it is not confined within the Godhead. At the very beginning, God chooses to empty himself of this love and pour it out; that is what creation is. The creation story in from Genesis is a great deal more than just a primitive attempt to explain the existence of things. It is a proclamation of how God’s love manifests itself, of how God could not delight in keeping such love within himself (which he could have done), but desired to pour out that love in a sort of recreation (or re-creation) that it might be shared.

In the same way, the Incarnation is a tangible example of how such love, to be perfect, is emptied out. In the same way, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is a sort of emptying, a kenosis, for as God proclaims to the prophet Joel “I will pour out my spirit,” empty myself of it, “upon all flesh.”

The Trinity, then, can be profitably understood not only in existential terms but in missiological terms. The relationship of mutual love within the Godhead (perichoresis) is one important element of our Trinitarian definition, but an appreciation of the Triune God’s activity (kenosis) is critical if we are to understand its spiritual and moral implications for us.

And what are those implications? We are called to nothing less than the same self-emptying which is exemplified in the Trinitarian mission. We are obliged to express love in a sacrificial, kenotic manner; not selfishly clutching to ourselves the love which God has poured out on us, but letting it go, pouring it out in creative action just as God did at the beginning and continues to do through the Holy Ghost. And in prayer, we pour that love back out to God, emptying ourselves that we might be filled anew, in sure and certain hope that, as St. Augustine put it, God continues to fill all things with his whole being.

It sounds awfully cerebral, but our response is rather simple. We love because God loved us. We can dress it up in lofty terms about the nature of the Trinity because it’s Trinity Sunday and it’s kind of fun to think in the terms of systematic theology. But if all of the theological hand waving that I’ve been doing for these last six or seven minutes leaves you cold, then at least take the conclusion home with you and think about it and think about your response to it. The mystery of the Trinity is above all else an affirmation of Christian love and the example we have from God himself that it must be shared.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 6 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends.” Jesus says this to the apostles on the night before he was given over to suffering and death. He had washed their feet and shared supper with them, and finally, in the midst of his last discourse with them, he surprises them yet again with this wonderful affirmation of their relationship. But what did it mean for the disciples, and what does it mean to us?

In all honesty, this used to make me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve got plenty of friends. I don’t need another friend, I thought. I need a master, a Lord.

The problem here, though, was not that Jesus was turning a profound relationship into something frivolous. It was, rather, that I was minimizing the profundity of friendship. Friendship isn’t a bagatelle. Christian friendship is a very weighty thing. It goes beyond “being buddies”. It is, at its heart, a serious commitment like all Christian relationships. Let’s look at a couple of those relationships as a means of understanding how Christian friendship is similar in intent and effect.

In prebaptismal and premarital counseling I always try to make it a point to say that the relationships which are realized in these sacraments are essentially reflections. They are reflections of God’s perfect love for all humanity and of the perfect love held within the Godhead through the mystery of the Holy Trinity. So, a marriage and its concurrent obligations as made explicit in the nuptial vows is a reflection of God’s love for us and of the love which defines God’s internal relationship (if you remember my Trinity Sunday sermon from a couple of years ago, this is the perichoresis- the way we understand the Trinity not as a division of labor but as a relationship of mutual love held between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Thus marriage is, ideally, a mirror off of which God’s love is broadcast to the world, or perhaps a window, into which we can peer and see God’s love.

Likewise, Baptism is not only about the objective regeneration and adoption of the child, whereby he is forgiven and made a child of God. It is also (at least in the case of infant Baptism) a means by which parents and godparents commit themselves to a relationship with the child which reflects God’s love. A parent’s chief responsibility is to establish a relationship with the child in which God’s perfect love can be seen. It goes beyond the tangible support a parent gives her child – meeting basic needs – to include the intangible: spiritual and emotional support, a moral example, a home full of prayer and Christian education (which is, after all, primarily the responsibility of the family, not of the institutional church, which can only do so much to support them in it).

So, how is this like friendship? Well, it’s not if friendship is merely sharing common interests and indulging in leisure together. These are important aspects of a friendship, but they are not the defining qualities of a Christian friendship. Rather, it is openness and love and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own well-being for another. That’s how Jesus defines friendship in this morning’s Gospel anyway:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you… This I command you, to love one another… Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus embodies Christian friendship- he reveals his Father’s will, he deeply loves those whom he calls friends, and he quite literally lays down his life for them.

Our responsibility, then, is to do the same. We do the same for Christ, our friend, and we do the same for our brothers and sisters whom God has given us to be our friends. We open our hearts and our intentions to God, neither do we hide them from our friends. We love God by serving him, and we love our friends by doing the same. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves – our petty desires, our comfort, even perhaps literally our lives – for God and for those whom he has given us to love.

Are our friendships reflections of God’s love? For that matter are our relationships with spouses and children a reflection of God’s love? Are we open in those relationships? Do we behave lovingly? Are we prepared to sacrifice ourselves for those other people? These are questions we must prayerfully and dutifully ask ourselves all the time.

And so, I leave you this week not with answers but with questions, which can be rather disappointing, but at least in this case potentially more profitable. May God give you the will to ask them and the grace, strength, and courage to commit yourselves again to those relationships, knowing that the hardest but most important thing we can do is to be mirrors for God’s love.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.